3 Simple Ways to Use Positive Reinforcement for Children

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "1-2-3 Magic" by Thomas W. Phelan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When and how should you praise your kids? When should you let natural consequences speak for you?

In 1-2-3 Magic, clinical psychologist Thomas W. Phelan provides strategies for (1) stopping unwanted behavior, (2) helping kids initiate and sustain productive behaviors, and (3) fostering healthy parent-child relationships. The second part of his method entails a heavy dose of positivity.

Keep reading to learn how to effectively use positive reinforcement for children.

Positive Reinforcement for Children

Phelan suggests routines as an effective strategy for helping kids get things done. Once those routines are established, he offers advice for using positive reinforcement for children to bolster them and avoid conflict. He discusses how to use appropriate praise, watch your tone, and embrace natural consequences.

#1: Use Appropriate Praise

Phelan encourages you to aim for a ratio of three positive comments for every negative comment you make to your children. Kids often get more negative feedback than positive from their parents simply because parents ‘leave well enough alone’ when kids are behaving well but speak up when kids start to misbehave. While well-intentioned, the result is that kids often end up hearing more about what they do wrong than what they do right. 

To deliver your positive comments, you might poke your head in the door when your child is playing nicely and commend her on her concentration, congratulate your son for sharing with his little sister, and so on. Phelan notes that unexpected, public praise is especially beneficial and meaningful for kids.

(Shortform note: Other child psychologists offer words of caution about praising children. When you praise the child for a talent or trait (their patience or intelligence, for instance) or for something they’ve done (a drawing or a performance), they might become anxious about not being able to live up to your expectations of them in the future. This might make them risk-averse, and they might prefer to avoid activities or challenges that could undermine the praise you’ve given them. This isn’t to say you should completely withhold praise but rather that you should praise children for things they have control over— their effort on a task, their enjoyment of a task, and so on.) 

When you do need to give your child constructive criticism, Phelan suggests using the positive-negative-positive pattern. This means that you sandwich the criticism part of your feedback with two positive comments. For instance, if your child just finished their morning routine, but their bed-making is sloppy, you might say something like: “Wow! Great job starting your morning jobs all on your own! It looks like you rushed a little when you were making your bed, so maybe you should go back and take your time getting everything lined up. I really liked how you also brushed your tongue when you did your teeth!”

(Shortform note: Some have proposed an alternative “praise sandwich” that might work better in some instances. Skeptics of the traditional praise sandwich argue that the actual constructive criticism can get lost or forgotten between two pieces of praise. Additionally, when this is how criticism is always delivered, the recipient of the criticism might learn to ignore the praise, thinking it’s just a prelude to a critique. They recommend that you instead first offer positive feedback, followed by your constructive criticism, and conclude with a discussion of the steps to improve. Still, younger children might find the traditional praise sandwich more motivating, and this alternative praise sandwich might be best reserved for older children.)  

#2: Watch Your Tone

Phelan notes that if your tone sounds like you’re ready for a fight with a child, you’re likely to get one, so it’s best to keep any requests non-confrontational. For example, if it’s almost bedtime, you might be frustrated to see your 10-year-old still playing in her room, rather than starting her bedtime routine. In this case, you could calmly say, “It’s just about bedtime, you’d better get started on your bedtime routine,” as opposed to, “Don’t you know what time it is! Why do I always have to remind you to get ready for bed!” 

(Shortform note: A great way to maintain your equilibrium as a parent and speak to your child calmly is to practice mindfulness and meditation. In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana describes mindfulness as a way to acknowledge your thoughts without surrendering control to them. So, for instance, if you’re being mindful, you might acknowledge that you feel frustrated by your 10-year-old’s behavior but not let that frustration lead you to raise your voice and reprimand them. Meditation is a great way to enhance mindfulness, and Gunaratana recommends starting your meditation practice in 10-minute installments and increasing the time.)

#3: Embrace Natural Consequences

In some instances, it’s best to simply let the natural consequences of your child’s not performing their routine serve as a tool to get them back on track. When you can rely on natural consequences to encourage your child to follow their routine, you don’t have to get involved, thereby avoiding tension in your relationship. Also, kids are more likely to learn from their mistakes after seeing that the consequence was a direct result of their behavior rather than a parent-manufactured punishment. 

For example, say it’s your 15-year-old’s responsibility to be ready for her friend to pick her up for school in the morning. If she doesn’t perform her morning routine on time, and her friend is mad at her for making him late, let that natural unpleasant consequence serve as an encouragement to stick to the routine. Or say your five-year-old throws a lengthy tantrum at dinner. A natural consequence might be that by the time he’s done, all the dessert has been eaten up by the rest of the family. This may encourage your child to stop dinnertime tantrums as they might lead to missed dessert.

(Shortform note: It’s important to distinguish natural consequences from logical consequences, or consequences imposed by you, which seem logical and fair to you (taking away a toy your child is destroying could be a logical consequence). While logical consequences may indeed be entirely fair, it’s still a punishment delivered by you as opposed to by, broadly speaking, the outside world (for example, a natural consequence would be to let your child destroy the toy and have to deal with no longer having that toy). When you set logical consequences, you risk conflict with your child, so it might be worth asking yourself if there’s a natural consequence you might lean on before imposing a logical consequence.)

3 Simple Ways to Use Positive Reinforcement for Children

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  • A simple countdown approach for disciplining your child
  • How to cultivate a warm and loving relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs are ineffective and don't correct bad behavior

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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